(Note: I am a blogger fellow for Brave New Films and their Sick For Profit campaign, detailing the practices of the insurance industry)

The Senate HELP Committee held a very interesting hearing on health insurance gender discrimination. It has not been a subject that has come up much in the current debate, but for women often paying twice as much as men for the same insurance coverage, it’s crucial. Marcia Greenberger of the National Women’s Law Center described it as being a woman equaling a “pre-existing condition.” Legislation in both chambers of Congress would eliminate gender discrimination and mandate certain treatments and procedures specific to women for all health care coverage.

This McClatchy story offers a sample of the testimony:

At Thursday’s hearing, many women had examples of individual policies that require women to pay more than men in some states, including Idaho, where insurers who issue individual policies can use age, sex, geography and whether a client smokes as factors in determining premiums. Some women attended the hearing wearing T-shirts that said, “I am not a pre-existing condition.” […]

The committee also heard from women such as Peggy Robertson of Colorado, who read a letter from her insurance company. Robertson testified that because she’d already given birth via cesarean, when she tried to get an individual policy in Colorado, her insurance company considered it a pre-existing condition and wouldn’t insure her unless she could prove she’d been sterilized.

That “put me on the edge of my chair,” said the chairwoman of the committee, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., calling it “offensive and morally repugnant.”

Yes, we’re talking about coercing sterilization in the United States of America. Courtesy of the insurance industry.

As we’ve read about in recent weeks, procedures like maternity care and mammograms are often not covered by insurers; the latter has become a major factor in the New Jersey Governor’s race, as the Republican nominee Chris Christie wants to allow insurers to drop coverage for mammograms. Greenberger added additional facts in her testimony:

Our research included an extensive analysis of gender rating, the practice under which insurers charge men and women different premiums for coverage. We found that in the individual insurance market, women can pay dearly because of this rampant practice. At age 25, for instance, women are charged as much as 45% more than men for coverage, and at age 40 they are charged as much as 48% more than men. Even with maternity care excluded, the variations in the differentials totally undermine any claim that these differences are actuarially driven.

For instance, we found that the best-selling health plans in Phoenix , Arizona charged a 40-year-old woman anywhere from 2% to 51% more than a 40-year-old man for identical coverage. In Lincoln , Nebraska a woman of that age was charged anywhere between 11% and 60% more than a man.

I don’t see how it is acceptable to give an industry that practices routine discrimination against the majority of Americans – whether it’s the sick, the elderly, or women – expanded power and a monopoly on a large market in the name of “reform.”

SEIU has an action item to Congress on this issue of gender inequity.

David Dayen

David Dayen